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Tougher Leslie Ignites Sparks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Poor Lisa Leslie.

The Sparks made her fly last Sunday from Berlin to Los Angeles, put her through one hard practice, then asked her to lead her team in a WNBA opener Thursday night.

Before the game, she indicated her team shouldn’t expect much.

“I had to summon all the energy I had to get through one practice,” she said. “My sleep clock is off. . . . I still feel bloated and swollen from the flight.”

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So here’s the drill, Sparks.

A day before every game this season, put Leslie on a long plane trip, bring her right back and suit her up.

Leslie, in a performance surpassing any she played last season, dominated the Utah Starzz at both ends of the court and led Los Angeles to a rousing 89-83 victory in its opener.

When it was over, Leslie had 24 points in 31 minutes, with 10 rebounds, three blocked shots, four assists and three steals.

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She has added 10 pounds of muscle to her long frame, and a good deal more aggression.

So aggressive was she in challenging Utah underneath that officials had to break up two confrontations.

Overshadowing the highly anticipated debut of Utah’s 7-foot-2 rookie, Margo Dydek, the 6-5 Leslie made one big play after another before fouling out with 2:22 to go.

Dydek blocked six shots--tying Leslie’s one-game league record--and scored 13 points in her debut.

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But she was no match for Leslie. Before an announced 9,330 at the Delta Center, Leslie set the tone in the first five minutes.

On the first shot of the game, Dydek blocked a ball put up by Leslie, then the Sparks’ center made a series of game-changing plays:

She made a great dish pass to Pam McGee for a bucket and a 4-2 early lead; she drove the baseline then went up and over Dydek to score, and capped a fastbreak with a basket for a 12-5 lead.

She even outplayed Utah’s Elena Baranova, who also played in the USA-Russia world title game last Sunday in Berlin. Baranova had 18 points and 14 rebounds.

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“Lisa was awesome,” teammate Katrina Colleton said. “Once she got into her rhythm, it was no contest.”

Said Spark guard Penny Toler: “Lisa told me in the off-season, ‘I’m bringin’ it to ‘em this season.’ Now I know what she meant.”

Spark Coach Julie Rousseau also was in awe of her center.

“She came into this season with a new mind-set,” Rousseau said. “Basically, she wants to win. She worked extremely hard, mentally and physically.”

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Afterward, Leslie said she wasn’t properly prepared for her first WNBA season. This, from a player who led the league in rebounding.

“I took a year off after the Olympics, I just wasn’t ready,” she said.

“I prepared myself mentally this time. I decided I needed to play well when I needed to the most, like stepping out of yourself. Michael Jordan does that every night.”

Spark Notes

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Larry Burnett and Wanda Szeremeta will broadcast every Spark game this season on KLAC (570). Chick Hearn and Ann Meyers will work two televised games on KCAL Channel 9, Sparks-Houston June 25 and Sparks-Detroit Aug. 16. . . . Margo Dydek will appear Friday on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” the Starzz announced.


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